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December 4, 2012

Player of the Week - What took so long?

It wasn't much of a surprise that Pitt junior defensive tackle Aaron Donald was named Big East Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in Saturday's regular-season finale at South Florida. After all, Donald led the way for a dominant defensive stand as the Panthers beat the Bulls 27-3.

The surprise was that it took until the final game of the regular season for Donald, arguably one of the best defensive players in the Big East, to earn the weekly honors.

"He's been tremendous," head coach Paul Chryst said Monday. "And the thing I love about it is, his play is a direct reflection of the way he approaches every day. He's certainly talented, but he gets the most out of it.

"I think there have been a number of weeks where you can make the argument that he is as good, if not the best defensive player in the conference. He's fun to be around. You enjoy watching him and appreciate the way he plays the game."

On Saturday night, Donald looked like one of the best players in the Big East, with four tackles for loss and a nine-yard sack against USF. Donald leads the Big East and ranks sixth nationally in tackles for loss, and he ranks fifth in the conference in sacks.

And yet this was Donald's first weekly recognition from the Big East as one of the league's premier players. That's not to say that Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene (three Player of the Week honors this season), Connecticut linebacker yawin Smallwood (two weekly honors), or any of the other honorees were undeserving, but the weekly snubs for Donald surprised even Chryst.

"That's exactly how it is," Chryst said when asked if he was surprised that Donald hadn't been named Player of the Week prior to this week. And while some may presume that conference expansion-related politics are at play, a more likely culprit is that ultimate arbiter: on-field success.

Of the 42 weekly honorees this season, only three have come from teams that lost the previous week, and two of those have been on special teams. Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, who threw for 482 yards and four touchdowns in a season-opening 42-41 loss to Northwestern, was the only Big East Offensive Player of the Week or Defensive Player of the Week to come from a team that didn't win.

Chryst knows that on-field success plays a big part in such recognition, and his team's performance hasn't quite been strong enough.

"Half our games, we didn't win, you know what I mean?" he said Monday. "And it's going to go to a guy typically that won a game.

"I think the beauty of him is the consistency with the way he's played. That, I think, is as impressive as any one game. He has a standard, and he plays to that standard. And I think he sets that bar pretty high."

Donald's standard is the thing that stands out to Chryst the most. The junior defensive tackle from Penn Hills has played at a high level all season, and high expectations have followed. So when Chryst was asked after the South Florida game whether Donald had elevated his game, the head coach hesitated.

"I'm not sure that he is at a different level; I thought he started the year playing at a pretty good level. I'm not trying to say that he's not playing well now; I think that the neat thing about Aaron, to me, is that he's earned the right to expect to play well and impact games. You appreciate the way he goes about everything and he's a fun player to be around."

That's not to say that Chryst doesn't appreciate what Donald, who might be the team's best overall player, is doing for the Panthers this season.

"You absolutely appreciate him; that's my fault if I gave off the impression that I don't. But you also expect it, and I think he expects it of himself. To me, that's what good players do, and I put him in that category. And we need him to be good, too."

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